Ukraine drones hit Russian oil facility as anti-Kremlin units stage attack

Ukrainian drones hit nine Russian cities and towns — some deep inside the country — as three groups of anti-Kremlin Russian fighters claimed a cross-border attack in southern Russia on Tuesday.

The drone strikes caused fires at petroleum facilities in Nizhny Novgorod, 480 miles from the Ukrainian border, and in Oryol, 95 miles from the border, Russian media reported.

The largest oil refining unit at Lukoil’s NORSI refinery in Nizhny Novgorod region was shut down due to the drone attack and subsequent fire, Kommersant-Privolzhye newspaper reported, citing an official at the plant.

Explosion at rail bridge deep inside Russia shows Ukraine’s reach

The drone attacks underscored Ukraine’s capacity to keep Moscow off-balance and to penetrate deep within Russian territory, despite Russia’s superior manpower and supplies of equipment and ammunition. Commenting on the drone attacks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “Our forces are doing what’s necessary.” He described the attacks as “terrorist activity.”

However, Ukraine’s ability to stop, much less expel, Russian forces in eastern Ukraine has been hampered by the stalling of a U.S. military aid package in Congress.

Russian officials maintained that the border attacks by the Ukraine-based fighters were thwarted. Roman Starovoit, governor of Russia’s Kursk region, said the fighters failed in their attempt to cross into Russia and penetrate the border town of Tetkino.

“There was an attempt by a sabotage and reconnaissance group to break through. There was a shooting battle, but there was no breakthrough,” he said on Telegram.

Fighters from the Freedom of Russia Legion, the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Siberian Battalion, who all claim to be Ukraine-based Russians battling President Vladimir Putin’s government, released statements and video about their attacks. It was not possible to verify the videos.

“We crossed the Rubicon. We crossed the border,” the Freedom of Russia Legion said in a statement on Telegram. The group and the Russian Volunteer Corps have announced previous such incursions.

Anti-Putin militias mount cross-border incursion in western Russia

According to its Telegram channel, the Siberian Battalion was formed in May last year, under the command of Vladom Ammosov. The three groups appear to be small armed formations, judging by their videos posted on Tuesday and earlier.

The Freedom of Russia Legion posted video showing several armored vehicles on a dirt track, but the location and date were unclear.

“We are liberating. Putin occupied Russia and forcibly seized power. And we are liberating our homeland,” said Alexey Baranovsky, who described himself as a drone operator with the legion in a video call. He said he was speaking from Russian territory.

He said the attack was timed to coincide with Russia’s presidential election, from March 15 to 17.

The election is certain to deliver Putin a fifth term, allowing him to rule until at least 2030 with an option for a further six-year term. Two antiwar candidates were barred from running against Putin, and his major rival, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, died in prison last month.

The crackdown on the opposition continued Tuesday with the detention of 15 activists after Federal Security Service agents raided their homes in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities. Three members of the activist group Pussy Riot were among those swept up by the raids.

Describing the election as a “so-called electoral procedure,” Baranovsky said: “We understand that these are not real elections. It’s another stage of power usurpation by Vladimir Putin.”

He said the group faces “certain resistance,” and he declined to outline plans. “Let’s see how events unfold further. In any case, we want to explain and show that elections in Russia are fundamentally illegitimate,” he said.

Baranovsky said that when the three groups were on Ukrainian territory, they were subordinate to Ukraine’s military but that in Russia, “we are truly autonomous and only follow our own command.”

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, told Ukrainian Pravda that the units consist of Russian citizens. “On the territory of the Russian Federation, they act completely autonomously, independently, fulfilling their sociopolitical program tasks,” he said.

In Moscow, Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that an Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane with eight crew and seven passengers crashed shortly after takeoff at around 1 p.m. in the Ivanovo region northeast of the capital after one of the engines caught fire. All 15 people onboard were killed, according to local reports.

Video posted on local media showed the plane attempting to return to the airport, slowly losing altitude with one engine on fire.

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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